25 February, 2012

I gave up smoking for Lent and in the middle of my drowsy, headachey Ash Wednesday morning it occurred to me to write about something I've noticed. Basically, some people are weird about smoking. I'm hesitant to write about this because I feel like someone will get offended, so please can you just read this in good faith.

I don't think people should be allowed to nonconsensually expose other people to secondhand smoke, so I am not interested in reading responses about how my argument is invalid because of secondhand smoke. I'm concerned about stuff like employers having a policy of not hiring smokers. If you want to relate it to benefits I can explain why it's not about that. It's also not about having a smoke-free workplace, since that's easy to maintain without not hiring smokers. Clearly, this kind of policy is about a group of people who do something unhealthy.

This subject is a bit close to my heart since I interviewed for my current job 2 weeks before they stopped hiring smokers, and also because I think smoking was a factor in losing my camp job. I didn't break any rules related to smoking, but my supervisors just had a different attitude toward me as a person.

I think it is weird that doing something unhealthy can turn a person into Bad News. When I read articles about places that don't hire smokers, they talk about it like good citizenship--not that they want healthy employees, but that they want employees who are "role models" and "set a good example." In addition to implying that smokers can be identified by sight when not smoking, this attitude equates goodness with striving to be physically healthy. Not that this is a new thing--observe fat hatred, or hatred of any disabled person who doesn't seem to be trying hard enough to not be disabled (i.e. all of us)--but I still think it's interesting.

Smoking is a sneaky subject because it can be categorized as a choice. But it is kind of an illness even if it's a chosen one. If people are addicted, that is an illness. If it's not an addiction, it still results in physical weakness and accelerated death. So I think smoking is cool because it shows you how people feel about sickness without those feelings being camouflaged by the propriety and pity they feel required to maintain when the person "hasn't chosen to be sick."

In American Horror Story, a bully beats up the main character Violet because the girl's grandmother died of lung cancer and Violet was smoking in a public place. I love this scene because I had a less Ryan Murphy version of the same experience. No violence I mean. But I had the sense that someone hated me because someone they loved died from what I was doing.

How does the construction of smokers as "our" enemies make sense? Because we might start liking them and then they might die? Because our grandmother died and we kind of want to beat her up for "bringing it on herself," but we can't because we love her and she's dead, so instead we will treat other people like her in ways we would never have wanted her to be treated?

If someone is to blame for the death of a smoker, and you don't want to blame the individual smoker or settle down to blaming no one, why don't you just blame tobacco companies for making cigarettes delicious and awesome? In theory people who hate smoking would probably say they do blame tobacco companies, but they don't really walk the walk. If smokers are the sheep/pawns of tobacco companies, why should we be denied jobs for something they did to us?

(I don't have anything against tobacco companies but I do think they're the only logical villain if you want to consider smokers victims or feel sorry for us.)

I feel like it's perverse not to care if you live a long time. Well, actually some dangerous things like driving are okay, but there are certain ways of shortening your life that are wrong. Smoking is wrong because it's like smacking God in the face, except atheists are just as offended. I don't know that it's not a more hostile version of the gooey/horrified reactions people have to quicker forms of self-injury. Do we really need ribbons and bracelets to draw attention to the fact that people put sharp stuff inside themselves and It's Serious?

I was going to say something about nonsmokers who have group discussions where they pat each other on the back for not liking the smell of smoke and thinking that people who smoke are dumb (outside of these conversations, some of the same people are totally happy to be around smoke) but this tangent is pulling on me. I feel like conventional self-injury is a bad sign and a bad solution, for me, but I think it is weird that a lot of people would want to gasp and call me a "cutter" (designating me as having a condition that puts me in a whole other class of people, a whole new noun) but wouldn't gasp about me ignoring mental or physical health problems, or not getting enough sleep, which can cause way more permanent damage than just palling around with tape dispensers/soup cans.

But anyway smoking? Probably one of the grosser things in the world but it still bothers me that I feel like it's become kind of this symbol/scapegoat of people who are ill/bad/ill-because-they're-bad. We're like an anthropomorphization of death you can yell at.

Note: I'm not interested in hearing about how you feel when you're around people who are smoking right now or have just been smoking. This post is about attitudes toward smokers that persist even when we currently aren't smoking and/or don't smell like smoke.


  1. Companies refusing to hire smokers is fucked up. People seem to worry all the time about a possibly encroaching governmental "nanny state," but nobody seems the slightest bit concerned about the development of a corporate nanny state. I mean, it's a personal lifestyle choice. It isn't really their business to give a shit one way or another. I mean, it might cause you to call in sick more often, but there's lots of things people might do that might cause them to call in sick more often and what are you gunna do, police everybody's personal lifestyles? Fuck that.

    ~ saying this as a non-smoker who finds the smell of cigarette smoke both disgusting and vile.

  2. I agree, and also disagree with almost all drug tests related to hiring, because what people do on their own time is up to them. If they do their job when they're on the job and aren't obviously some kind of low-life, there's no good reason not to hire based on what they spend their free time doing, whether it be smoking, drinking, or selling Amway.

    This hits very close to biases based on religion, politics, marital status or sexual orientation. It's simply *no one's business*.

  3. I have a lot against tobacco companies, but it has nothing to do with thinking smokers are sheep. Other than that, I agree with most of what you're saying here.

    I think all the lifestyle-enforcement stuff that corporations do under the guise of caring about people's health (and "reducing the cost of benefits for all of us") has a lot to do with a general American disgust/contempt for poor people.

    Obesity is closely tied to poverty. So is smoking. And it's considered totally OK to be publicly disgusted by fat and cigarettes. In an imaginary ideal world, nicotine addiction and obesity would be treated with the same matter-of-fact compassion as depression or schizophrenia -- meaning non-judgmental support and treatment should be available if people want it, and if they don't want it then they should be left the hell alone. Instead, as you pointed out, nicotine addiction is treated with exactly the same contempt as any other illness: if you're "sick," you're not working hard enough to get better, and you're dragging everyone else down with you.

    It has always seemed strange to me that it's OK to talk about how disgusting and smelly smoking is, but it's not socially acceptable to say the same about perfume (which is just as likely to cause cancer or endocrine system disruption, and in my opinion smells way worse than cigarette smoke). Because clearly there's a whole set of moral judgments attached to smoking, unrelated to its smell or its cancer-causing properties. Smoking is something that poor people, bad people, dumb people do; and we don't feel the same way about perfume-wearers as a whole class of people.

    The state of Oregon recently changed its health plan for state employees, and now forces workers to pay an insurance surcharge if they smoke or are overweight (smoking is self-reported; "overweight" is based on measured waist circumference). They're not offering an incentive to people who DON'T smoke; they're fining the people who do. This is fucked up in so many different ways I don't even know where to begin… the union I work for has been fighting this initiative since it was announced but it has a lot of public support.

  4. I don't tell other PwDs (especially other Autistics) I smoke when I'm around smokers because then it becomes An Issue. I don't smoke if I'm going someplace where people with smell sensitivities are or anything. '

    I'm not planning on smoking at home when I get unhomeless, even though sometimes I get all depressed and anxious and I think: binge eating will kill me faster as it stands than the smoke will.

    But when I'm around smokers if I don't smoke, It makes me feel sick, headaches and nausea. So I smoke, and the headaches and nausea don't happen. Sometimes it's nice to be with smokers, if only because then I can do something with my fear of people that is acceptable to them.

    Even though I wish I didn't need that acceptance.

    1. Also, if we ever meet up, I'll smoke with you. We can be those smelly smokers everyone else will give side eye to when we come back inside. :)

  5. I had a conversation like this on my last day at the mental health law nonprofit... a lot of people were sort of rhetorically asking "why in the world does anyone still smoke?" Which I found a bit weird considering that our population (people with mental illness, and to some extent people with psychosocial disabilities in general) is one of most at-risk populations for tobacco addiction. Of the whole group, only I and one other person had a history of smoking, and we felt that people were judging us for even having started, despite the fact that we'd quit (and I've never been physically addicted, as far as I know; my smoking is pretty much situational).

    -Twitchy Woman (I don't know why but neither OpenID nor Wordpress commenting are working for me)

  6. I'm not sure this is precisely topical, but I find it annoying the way smoker is considered a pure either or thing and one is assumed to be either unhealthy or never smoke.

    I would never smoke again and it wouldn't be hard if they could invent another anxiety medicine that actually worked on my weird brain. I've managed to never get addicted, so I only smoke for fun on a special occasion or if I can't cope with stress and need immediate relief to be safe. I'm pretty sure careful use of cigarrettes has saved my life and I smoke about a pack a year, which probably isn't that bad for me considering.

    But I'm basically treated exactly the same.

    I don't think I'm better than a serious smoker or anything. I actually kind of like smoker culture and almost wish I could smoke more without being scared. I'm just saving that I think even doctors are lying to themselves when the say its for your health. Unhealthiness is the reason people chose to stigmatize this particular behavior, but once society says something is bad, what they really get mad about is having the nonconformism to disobey I think.

    I think people are giving the anti-smoking people too much credit.

  7. As a doctor, I can honestly say it has nothing to do with nonconformity. GPs see thousands of people and if we worried about nonconformity we'd be gibbering wrecks.

    We are, however, experienced at 'breaking bad news'; telling people they have lung cancer, or heart disease, or yes, this is a stroke and the paralysis is likely to be permanent, and many, many other situations that wouldn't have happened but for smoking. I see every day the results of smoking; the illness burden on the population is huge. Likening it to driving is a strawman as most of us have to get into a vehicle regularly in order to get somewhere, however you can go your whole life without smoking and not be remotely inconvenienced. And smokers are not demonised in the media nearly as much as fat people.

    My father died of lung cancer when I was sixteen, the most devastating event in my life. Every smoker I see is someone who is willing to inflict that trauma on their family, and I find it very hard to be sympathetic. I will help people to quit, but I won't sit there and listen to how hard they have it because they can no longer light up at work. Especially as research shows that smokers take up to 50% extra time in smoking breaks above their allotted time, while their nonsmoking colleagues keep working. Some employers may have factored that into their decisions, too.

  8. I don't want to light up at work, I just don't want my ability to have a job to be affected by something I do at home.

  9. "We're like an anthropomorphization of death you can yell at."

    This is amazing writing. Yes, I think that is exactly it.

    (Don't smoke, never have --- too invested in my athletic prowess to ever want to ruin it --- but I have seen the demonization and think it's weird and wrong.)

    I also think fat people get this, too: people hating on them, making their lives harder and thinking they're doing them a favor.